CONFEDERATION OF THE RHINE Or, Rhenish Confederation; RHEINBUND; la Confédération du Rhin.
In July 1806 a group of German principalities with the foreknowledge and approval of France joined together to form a new Confederation. From the south of Germany came Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden, the three great gainers of territory over the previous four years; as did four small survivors – the two Hohenzollern Principalities, the Principality von der Leyen and the Principality of Liechtenstein. From central Germany came the Grand Duchy of Hesse, two Nassau Principalities, and Isenburg, while from the Lower Rhineland and Westphalia were recruited the Grand Duchy of Berg (whose ruler was a Marshal of France), two Salm Principalities and Aremberg, all recent creations, at least in the form they took in 1806.
In addition the Electoral Arch-Chancellor, one of the two surviving ecclesiastical princes, joined under the title of the Prince Primate (Fürstprimas). This new grouping was formed by states seceding from the Holy Roman Empire, and within the month the Empire itself was brought to an end by the abdication of the Emperor.
The Prince Primate, Karl Theodor von Dalberg, was to be the president of the Diet that would create the constitution for a federation enlightened by the ideals of the Revolution; it never met. The leading south German states, beneficiaries of the destruction of the small states within and around them, were not interested in a federation but in their own sovereignty, to be protected by an alliance one with another. Where Dalberg looked to Napoleon as the champion of enlightenment and reform, the southern states preferred him as ultimate protector but wished him to keep his nose out of their affairs. Napoleon’s enlightenment was real enough, but it was as nothing compared to his sense of military necessity. The Confederation of the Rhine was a convenient buffer zone, a recruiting place for his armies, and a useful place for dynastic arrangements to bolster the Imperial pretensions of the Bonapartes: an alliance rather than a real Confederation therefore suited him well enough.
With the Confederation formed and the Empire gone, the first prince to join the original sixteen, in September 1806, was the Grand Duke of Würzburg, the brother of the former Holy Roman Emperor. In December Saxony entered as a Kingdom, to be followed almost instantly by the little cluster of the five Saxon Duchies. Their adherence was the result of the breakdown between France and Prussia: earlier Napoleon had envisaged a North German Confederation as well as the Rhenish, but Prussia would not cooperate.
In April 1807, with war looming between France and Prussia, many of the little north German states dashed for cover: four Reuss princes, three Anhalts, two Schwarzburgs, two Lippes and Waldeck joined the Confederation. In November 1807 the Kingdom of Westphalia joined the Confederation, having been formed in July for Jerome Bonaparte, the youngest brother of the Emperor, from the lands of some of Napoleon’s German enemies. In 1808 three stragglers from the northern edges came in: Mecklenburg-Strelitz (February), Mecklenburg-Schwerin (March) and Oldenburg (October).
In 1810 France annexed northwestern Germany. Oldenburg, last in, was equal first out, with the two Salms and Aremberg. It suited the convenience of the protector of the Confederation to absorb four of its states. The same year Dalberg ceased to be Prince Primate. The last ecclesiastical prince was turned into a secular ruler as Grand Duke of Frankfurt and the princely lands of his primatial see, the Archbishopric of Regensburg, were ceded to France and then absorbed by Bavaria, neatly symbolising that the Confederation and its protector owed more to the worldly politics of King Max Joseph of Bavaria than to the unworldly hopes of Dalberg.
By 1813 worldly politics had been transformed. Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow encouraged a new German defiance and there was a great rush to leave the sinking ship of the Confederation. At Leipzig in the Battle of the Nations Napoleon was defeated by the armies of the former defeated German powers, joined by those of some of the deserters. The Confederation, such as remained, collapsed. In the aftermath the King of Saxony, who, though he had wavered, had joined Napoleon at Leipzig, lost much territory; the south German states kept their gains. King Max Joseph, who had left the Confederation before Leipzig, recovered the Palatinate lands west of the Rhine for Bavaria.
He could not however avoid relegation to the second division of German powers. The two European great powers, Austria and Prussia, excluded from the Confederation of the Rhine, returned to political Germany when they became the two leading powers in the new German Confederation of 1815.